Since his easy win in the Florida primary six weeks ago, Mitt Romney's sprint to Tampa to claim the Republican presidential nomination at the party's national convention has become a long slog. His losses to Rick Santorum in Alabama and Mississippi this week highlight his weaknesses and reflect the deep divisions within the party. Yet Romney remains the Republicans' only viable candidate for the general election, and he has to be as convincing as he makes that argument next week in Illinois as he was in January in Florida.
Santorum's victories in the South cemented his position as the conservative alternative, the role initially sought by such now-forgotten flashes as Michele Bachmann, Herman Cain and Rick Perry. Newt Gingrich remains in the race fueled only by ego, the casino owner bankrolling an independent ad campaign and his bogus claim that he can magically reduce the cost of gasoline to $2.50 a gallon. Ron Paul has morphed from the entertaining uncle talking about the gold standard to just another familiar face whose moment has long passed.
That doesn't make Santorum a viable option. The former Pennsylvania senator does not recognize the separation of church and state, and his hard-edged opposition to abortion rights is at odds with the law, court rulings and public opinion. Santorum indirectly questioned President Barack Obama's Christianity by referring to his agenda as some "phony theology,'' and he said President John F. Kennedy's speech affirming the separation of church and state made him want to "throw up." He may appeal to enough conservative voters to win a Republican primary in Alabama, but he is not an electable national candidate.
However radical in his beliefs, Santorum comes off as approachable and sincere in his values. That is where Romney falls short. His positions too often seem contrived or inconsistent, highlighted by his defense of the Massachusetts health care plan he helped create as governor and his vow to seek the repeal of the similar national health care reforms. But his biggest liability is the perception that he is a wealthy businessman who is out of touch and can't connect with voters. His observation in Michigan that his wife drives a couple of Cadillacs and his new affection in Mississippi for "cheesy grits" aren't helping.
The Republicans can blame themselves for this primary process that is not helping their case for replacing Obama. They miscalculated by creating a long primary schedule front-loaded with few large diverse states other than Florida, which broke the rules. That has allowed the so-called super PACs to spend millions on negative ads that created a sour atmosphere. The schedule also accentuated the deep philosophical and cultural divides within the Republican Party and overemphasized the voices of evangelicals and other conservatives who prefer ideological purity over electability.
Despite the media talk of a brokered convention, Romney remains well ahead in the delegate count. He's come back from losses before and won Florida, Ohio and Michigan. But to confirm his reservation for Tampa, Romney has to keep winning big states and make a more compelling case that he is the Republican best positioned to compete in a general election.